YouTube was new, only two years old in fact, when lanky 16-year-old Bo Burnham uploaded a memorable video. "Hi, gang. I just woke up, so I thought I'd serenade – serenade you, rather – with a song," he says to camera. "Digest it. Soak it in. Then use it as you will." He then sings "My Whole Family Thinks I'm Gay", a song he feels a little queasy about now.
At 28, Burnham has a better read on the internet than most. He’s agnostic about the term YouTuber. “It doesn’t even qualify as a backhanded compliment,” he laughs. His videos have, nonetheless, been viewed more than 250 million times. “You watch movies and the internet is all search engines and cat videos,” he says. “People don’t have a clue about the internet.”
The crippling anxieties of the internet age loom large in Eighth Grade, Burnham’s first film as writer-director.
“I was feeling such anxiety from my job of performing,” he says. “And then I would talk about those problems onstage and afterwards kids – 14-year-old girls – would come up to me and say, ‘I know exactly what you’re going through. I’m going through it, too.’”
Eighth Grade, Burnham’s hilarious, charming, clever coming-of-age tale, the best film about teen angst since Edge of Seventeen, concerns a young girl trying to find her place in a world of social media-reinforced peer pressure. At 13, Kayla (played by remarkable newcomer Elsie Fisher) is younger than most teen heroines. That’s kind of the point, says Burnham; by 15 you’re over the worst of it.
Poignantly unconvincing affirmations
Kayla’s unpolished YouTube vlogs are peppered with “like” and “you know” and with poignantly unconvincing affirmations. “Topic of today’s video is Being Yourself,” she says, “And it’s, like, you know, well, aren’t I always being myself?”
By way of research, Burnham watched hundreds of vlogs from similarly uncertain teenagers. He searched videos by upload day, rather than view counts, in order to find those kids with no more than a handful of followers. “It probably doesn’t look great when you’re doing research for your movie, but your research is watching Middle School Pool Party,” he says.
As someone who has publicly struggled with social anxieties, he soon found that he had more in common with the girls. “The boys tended to talk about Minecraft,” he says. “And the girls tended to talk about their souls” The resulting movie is authentic. Etc Etc. Lol. Lol.
“For me the ultimate responsibility with working with young teenagers is to protect them from being the thing that is every 13-year-old’s reality at the moment: the hell of comparing themselves to some perfect idea,” he says. “I keep being asked was Elsie embarrassed doing this or that. No, she was embarrassed turning up to every other audition she turned up to feeling like she had to completely conceal everything about herself in order to be worthy of the camera.
“The kids in the movie knew what they were going to represent and they thought: ‘hey, I don’t love that I’ve got braces, but I’d like to see someone with braces in a movie; that would make me feel better about myself’. It takes a certain amount of bravery from the kids. But the thing you forget about this time in your life – and especially since the internet – is that you’re self-aware. You know you’re a mess when you’re 13. There’s been representative media for so long. You’re not unaware of your own awkwardness. But you also know it’s a phase. You know it’s going to be better one day and you can laugh about yourself. I remember being with my friends when I was 13, making fun of each other for being awkward, because someone’s voice cracks or whatever.”
Isolation in the digital age
You could argue that the film’s poignancy is offset by larger meanings about isolation in the digital age and about the challenges of living life online.
“This is not my point; this is something that I’ve heard from other people,” Burnham says. “There are all these great dystopian ideas and fictions that we come up with. Like this electromagnetic pulse idea that would knock out the internet and the entire world would be turned into The Walking Dead. These are not really dystopian fantasies. Living in the woods again without a record of everything? That’s a utopian fantasy for us. It’s rough. It’s terrifying. And the strange thing is the information is accumulated so quickly and so densely, we never look back on it or process it. We’re gathering all this information for posterity but by the time we should be looking back on it, we’re gathering something else. It’s like people taking footage at concerts instead of watching the concert. They just experience capturing the concert but not the concert itself. And they never actually get to look back on that footage again.”
Eighth Grade has attracted rave reviews and busy awards attention, including the Writers Guild of America Award for best original screenplay and the Directors Guild of America Award for best first feature. Manhola Dargas of the New York Times raved: “She knows – or just hopes – that someone, somewhere, is paying attention, a much-tested optimism that Mr Burnham celebrates beautifully.” The film’s exclusion from the Oscars raised eyebrows, although Elsie was a hit on the red carpet. Further compensation came with a voice-role in the upcoming, starry remake of The Addams Family.
“You can be kind of cynical going into it but if you’re a small movie you’re like: ‘holy shit – people are going to watch the movie because of this’,” Bonham says. “That’s the thing people say: these awards are bullshit, that they don’t mean anything. They actually do. It’s not until you actually have your own movie that you realise how hard it is to get a movie noticed, especially a movie that has a small budget. You can’t pay for billboards and you’re competing with superhero movies. Awards are all you have.”
Doctor Bo will see you now
Robert Pickering Burnham was born in Hamilton, Massachusetts in 1990. His parents had always intended to call him Bo. “It was a back-up plan in case I became a serious person or a doctor or something,” says Burnham of the name on his birth cert. “Nobody wants to hear: ‘Doctor Bo will see you now.’”
Bo’s father ran a construction company. His mother became a hospice nurse. He was a kid at an all-boys Catholic school with an interest in experimental theatre.
“We were a big sports family so my family treated my theatre like it was a sport,” he says. “Lots of people succeed in spite of not having great support, but I felt incredibly supported. My parents were always like: ‘What? I can’t believe you doing this! I can’t believe you’re on a stage!’ It was exciting and strange for them. And it was my thing, so I never had to compare myself to anybody else. My father would show up to A Winter’s Tale – like, Shakespeare’s worst play by a mile – five times. A four-hour production. That was very sweet of him.”
Burnham was still in high school when he received his first call from a Hollywood agent. He was accepted into New York University's experimental theatre programme, but ultimately deferred so he could tour the comedy circuit. Within months, Judd Apatow saw him perform at Montreal's Just for Laughs festival and invited him to develop a script, a project Burnham describes as the "anti-High School Musical." It didn't work out although Burnham did feature in Apatow's Funny People and The Big Sick.
“I really wasn’t ready to write a film and it was really good that it wasn’t made,” he says. “It was nice though. I learned a lot. I learned how to write a movie. I didn’t know anything about structure and three acts. I don’t know anything about films at all. So it was a really, really incredible experience.”
Edinburgh Comedy Awards
In 2010, Burnham won both the panel prize at the Edinburgh Comedy Awards – formerly the Perrier Award – along with the Malcolm Hardee “Act Most Likely to Make a Million Quid” Award. The same year, Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous, which Burnham wrote, executive-produced, and starred in, debuted on MTV. It ran for three seasons.
By the time he came to shoot Make Happy, his third Netflix special as a comedian, he was a wreck. "They say it's, like, the Me Generation," he says during a stand-up routine that doubles as a critique of all stand-up routines. "It's not. It's not. The arrogance is taught, or it was cultivated. It's self-conscious. That's what it is. It's that – it's conscious of self. What the – social media – it's just the market's answer to a generation that demanded to perform. So the market said, here, perform everything to each other all the time for no reason. It's prison. It's horrific. It is performer and audience melded together. What do we want more than just to lie in our bed at the end of the day and just watch our life as a satisfied audience member? I know very little about anything, but what I do know is that if you can live your life without an audience, you should do it."
Much to chew over there. “I really didn’t enjoy it,” he tells me. “It made me very anxious. Maybe now I feel better than I did. But I was pretty miserable all the time. Literal panic attacks. A lot of comics reached out to me after I started talking about it. They told me I’m so fucking nervous to I have to take medication. Or I take beta blockers before I go on stage at Carnegie Hall. Adele suffers from that. And reading about her experiences with stage fright and anxiety helped me when I was on the road.”
He retreated from the stage to direct Netflix specials with other comedians, notably Chris Rock and Jerrod Carmichael. He first wrote Eighth Grade in 2015, but it required the involvement of Eli Bush, producer of Lady Bird, to get the project moving. Having never been a movie kid, Burnham has developed a taste for the medium in recent years – and expresses admiration for Paul Thomas Anderson, Steve McQueen and Yorgos Lanthimos in particular.
“I think it’s amazing that Yorgos has become this premier director in American cinema, even though he’s not American and he’s making strange vibrant movies that aren’t like anything else,” he says.
He also expresses enthusiasm for the “messy” work of the Safdie brothers – the team behind the recent cult hit Good Time.
He won’t be getting back to his own messes any time soon. Right now he’s happy to finally say goodbye to Eighth Grade and do bits and pieces of exploratory writing.
“I’ve got offers,” he says. “I keep getting books about kids and request to adapt them. The thing is I don’t really give a shit about kids stories – that’s not my primary interest. Certainly, having just done one, my main interest lies with not doing one. And whatever I do next I want it to be original.”
– Eighth Grade is released on April 26th